Apr 14, 2011
Ripped Off By Theft Rings, Stores Fight BackBy Jim SpencerYDR.com

ELLICOTT CITY, Md. — With frosted, unmarked windows and no sign hanging from the storefront, Target’s retail crime investigations center doesn’t even look like it is being used.

But inside, analysts and investigators are poring over footage from surveillance cameras and inventory spreadsheets. They are searching for leads on theft rings that have replaced old-school shoplifters with sophisticated criminals.

It’s a battle where major U.S. retailers are struggling to gain ground. While retailers spend $12 billion a year to battle organized retail crime, thieves pilfer $15 billion to $30 billion annually, a huge blow to businesses and, ultimately, their customers.

“These are sophisticated crime rings,” said Mike Erlandson, who heads government relations for Supervalu grocery stores. “They know what to steal and how much to steal.”

Target has responded by opening several crime centers across the country. The center in suburban Baltimore recently helped break a ring of 14 people who stole $20 million in merchandise from several retailers over a three-year period. Despite such victories, organized retail crime persists today, in part, because the Internet makes it easier than ever to dispose of stolen merchandise. Thieves snag popular, easy-to-move items — everything from Enfamil baby formula to Gillette razors to Olay lotion, often by the case. They work fast and efficiently, snatching a couple of Dyson vacuum cleaners and busting out the fire doors of stores into waiting getaway cars.

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